By Katherine Price, Sustainability Editor: Can carbon labelling nudge customers into making better choices?
Carbon labelling has been steadily rolling out across the foodservice sector over the last year, with companies including BM Caterers, Benugo and Compass UK & Ireland all now communicating with their customers the carbon footprint of their food choices.
Over the last two years, Compass’ Business & Industry (B&I) arm has been working with researchers at the University of Oxford’s Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) group to develop and monitor whether eco labels on food and beverages nudges consumers to make more sustainable choices.
Products are graded on their greenhouse gas emissions, water and biodiversity impact to produce a simple rating between A (the most environmentally friendly) to E (the least). As part of its commitment to achieve net zero by 2030, the team knew that bringing customers on this journey would be key to meeting its ambitious environmental targets, says head of nutrition and sustainability for Compass’ B&I sector Rees Bramwell.
The group pulled together a full ingredient list of more than 10,000 of its recipes, which LEAP produced labels for based on global averages. On rollout, the focus was on training the frontline teams to prepare them for any questions from customers.
“When customers see this on a menu, they’re obviously going to ask the person serving them rather than someone who works in sustainability like myself,” Bramwell explains. “I wasn’t going to be on site to answer all of those questions, so we gave them one-pagers and FAQs they could use to help them feel confident in delivering it, which was always going to be key to the success of the trial.”
He says customers have probably been most surprised by the rating of fish dishes. “People have heard a lot about red meat – beef and lamb especially – but they haven’t heard so much about the impact that can be caused by fishing,” he explains.
“I [also] think people were surprised by the difference between the beef and lamb and the plant-based dishes, they were surprised by how much difference it really can make.”
It wasn’t originally the plan, but he says an unexpected bonus has been that the teams now understand much more about sustainability than they did before. Anecdotally, employees have said it’s made them think about their own eating habits, and he says this has helped embed the ‘net zero’ ethos culture into the company as, with the evidence in front of them, people can understand better how it works and how to apply it in both their personal and professional lives.
It’s also supporting the team to make evidence-based decisions and changes behind the scenes. Since last year, Compass’s B&I sector has eliminated E-rated recipes completely, shifted 65% of its D-rated recipes into a higher category, and increased the number of A-rated dishes by 25%.
Part of this has been through menu development, not only increasing the number of plant-based dishes but also reformulating popular meat dishes to substitute some meat with beans and pulses, such as lentils in a Bolognese and beans in beef burgers.
“We know meat and dairy is one of our biggest levers to reduce our carbon footprint, as it will be for most food companies I imagine,” says Bramwell. “It’s one of the first things we prioritised as well as food waste.”
BM also launched carbon labelling across its B&I sites last year, which nutrition manager Charlotte Newman says has had a similar impact. “We have seen a significant increase in conversations between our teams and their guests about carbon, as well as between our chefs themselves,” she says.
“We know that, as a direct result of this, our chefs have a deeper and clearer level understanding and will continue to consider what food they use and its carbon footprint when they come to develop their recipes and menus.”
Although she says it’s too early for any hard data, this anecdote doesn’t stand alone, and in a recent client site trial, BM saw a 17% increase in purchases of products with a lower carbon footprint.
The data from the University of Oxford trial is also not yet available and although it’s too early to be certain whether it’s nudging customers in the right direction at Compass, the business has subsequently rolled out the eco labelling across every site in its B&I sector. “We just got such good feedback on it, so we saw no reason to stop it,” says Bramwell.
Early signs indicate “strong” vegan and vegetarian sales, which since last year make up 50% of Compass’ B&I sector dishes, and chefs are anecdotally having to produce them in higher quantities.
Empowering customers with the information to make their own choice
Part of that, Bramwell feels, is because of the approach – providing customers with the information about the carbon count of the food they’re eating in a non-judgmental, straightforward way, empowering them to make an informed choice.
“It’s really important that consumers are able to make the choice themselves, which is why education and information is hugely crucial before wholesale changes in behaviour can happen,” agrees Newman.
Sophie McCready, head of marketing at caterer Benugo, also agrees: “If people want to keep buying a ham and cheese baguette, which is one of our most popular items, they’re going to keep buying it. But there will be some people who won’t.”
Benugo trialled a carbon labelling scheme at the Natural History Museum in London last year, which has since been rolled out across its sites.
“It’s a bit too soon for us to tell whether that’s had a big impact on whether people are switching products – maybe in six months we’ll have more of an idea,” she explains. “Things like this are a slow burn.”
However, Benugo is seeing an increasing number of customers opting for plant-based milks, and prior to carbon labelling, the bestselling items at its café in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum were the hot chocolate and ham and cheese baguette – some of the highest carbon rated items on the menu. This has since shifted to a frittata, salad and a latte.
“It could be that we just had a different lovely offer that people like, but it could be that this is slowly starting to make a difference,” says McCready.
The importance of marketing
The way dishes are marketed to customers has also been important based on lessons learned from the health and wellbeing side. Bramwell says overtly advertising dishes as ‘healthy’ conversely tends to put off customers, and so they decided against labelling dishes as vegan or vegetarian, instead focusing on the ingredients, provenance and flavours in the title and descriptions. Although the dishes are labelled through a small ‘v’ symbol, he says guests that don’t identify with that label can be discouraged by a title such as ‘vegan tagine’ when compared with a description like ‘hearty butternut squash tagine’.
“We do get some requests to have a vegan counter in our cafeterias or restaurants and we try to discourage that,” he explains. “If someone isn’t vegan, then they won’t visit that counter [when] they might have chosen it if it was incorporated into the rest of the menu.”
Although, Benugo is going to trial highlighting low carbon menu items at its outlets at St James’s Park in London to observe whether this has a positive impact on consumer choices and may roll this out further if it works well.
“That’s going to be really interesting to see if that makes a difference. Everybody’s behind it and everybody wants to be seen to make a difference and this is a really simple way to do that,” says McCready.
The placement of plant-based dishes has also been carefully thought through. “We try to put plant-based dishes at the front of the counter, at the front of the customer journey and at the top of the menus so people are noticing it and have got every opportunity to buy that dish,” says Bramwell.
Benugo has taken a similar approach – vegan items are now located at the top of menus, which at the Ashmolean is a spinach gnocchi, and this has become the best-selling main dish at the site. However, this is only the start of the company’s sustainability journey, says McCready.
“It’s not enough and we know that. We need to do more and find out what the next thing is,” she says.
“We also don’t want to lose that sense of fun that people have when they go to a museum or a park, that’s really important as well. It’s always about balance,” she adds. “If it doesn’t taste good, there’s no point doing it anyway.”